The Incoherence of Modern Reformists

The modern era, with the ethical conundrums it bears, understandably causes people to search for answers that speak to their present condition. To this end, countless new movements have appeared laying claim to “true” Islam. Qur’anists, Perennialists, Qadianis, Progressives, and various new political movements are but a subset of this phenomenon. Most of these groups market themselves as either a “revival” or “reformation” of Islam and while they seem different superficially, they share an approach to what has been handed down to us from the ulema (scholars) of Islam. They all advocate a revisionist approach to the traditional scholarly works, and by extension, the Qur’an and the Sunnah. This revisionism, however, is not one that engages in the 1400 years of ijtihad (rigorous interpretation) of the texts, but one that categorically rejects and replaces all with man-made novelties that are then cloaked as religious. They reject traditional scholarship by being profoundly anti-clerical, deriding the Islamic tradition and religious authorities. Reformists buy into a harmful myth that if our scholarly heritage is severed, then the laymen can self-discover “true Islam.” The reality is that they often start with a conclusion in mind, and then seek to interpret the texts to align with their preconceptions, promoting their newfound ideology by deriding the great majority of Islamic thought and attaching themselves to powerful international movements.

I myself am surrounded by many friends and family who are of a more “reformist” bent. They view Islamic scholarship pessimistically, questioning its authority and even relevancy in conversations about the Islamic stance on any particular issue. They have significant distrust of “fanatics,” a characterisation they level at any and all traditional Islamic scholars. One example of this attitude is when an acquaintance of mine once quoted a hadith about the end times (without any attempt at authenticating the hadith) that says, “the religious scholars will be the worst creation under the canopy of heaven.” I was then told this hadith obviously refers to our time! On investigating the hadith, I found it was only partially quoted and the authenticity of hadith was weak anyways. However, this disdain was not exclusively reserved for contemporary figures. Appeals to numerous classical scholars would be dismissed as “irrelevant” or simply “from a different time” and thus no longer applicable. We were just fortunate enough to finally get to the correct understanding of Islam that had been missing for centuries. This correct understanding also coincidentally happened to perfectly conform to various modern values.

Modern Misguidance Case 1: Islamicising the LGBT Ideology

The topic of homosexuality remains contentious in today’s discourse around religion, and reformist groups widely promote a revision of this topic in Islam. For example, the organization, Muslims for Progressive Values, published a paper to promote the notion that homosexual relations are permitted in Islam according to the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah. [1] This is in spite of the fact that sexual relations between individuals of the same sex is prohibited unanimously [2] across classical Islamic scholarship. However, this is rendered a non-issue if we simply discard Islamic scholarship and decide to formulate our own interpretation from scratch. It is thus not a surprise that the paper does not actually quote any classical scholar specifically on the topic of homosexuality. However, dismissing the works of Islamic scholars is not sufficient. After all, many of those “outdated” or “backwards” ideas that result in the scholars being dismissed are based on Islamic scripture. As such, there are often many verses of the Qur’an and ahadith of The Prophet ﷺ that now need to be read in an alternative manner. Thus, the paper appeals to a “thematic” reading of the story of the Lot in the Qur’an. According to the paper, once the story is read in such a way, one can see that it does not condemn homosexuality at all. Those Muslims who disapprove of homosexuality either do so because of prejudice and bias or because of an erroneously literal reading of the Qur’an. A proper “thematic” reading of the Qur’an and sunnah would not condemn homosexuality. One remains wondering, however, how these verses, which are not addressed in the paper, are to be interpreted thematically: “And [We had sent] Lot when he said to his people, “Do you commit such immorality as no one has preceded you with from among the worlds? Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women. Rather, you are a transgressing people.” [Qur’an 7:80-81]

The above is a clear example of people today “discovering” the correct interpretation, yet having it coincidentally align with modernity. There is not a single significant Islamic authority in (at least) the first 1300 years of the religion to ever interpret the Qur’an and sunnah in a manner permitting homosexual intercourse. After discarding their scholarship and reinterpreting the Qur’an according to one’s own whims, the opposite conclusion is easily reached. Yet only now, after homosexuality and gay rights have become a modern issue, do we actually see anyone reach such a reading of the Qur’an. It is not an accident that only after many modern societies have normalized this issue do we see such “interpretations” of the Qur’an appear for the first time. There is a clear causal connection, not coincidence. Apparently, we did not get the Qur’an and sunnah right for the first time in over a millennium. Similar trends can be observed in other issues, such as interpretations promoting secularism or (unrestricted) free speech.

Modern Misguidance Case 2: Liberalising Crime & Punishment

As we saw with the example above, there was a clear effort to distort Islamic texts into supporting a specific, preconceived agenda. One starts with a premise and then tries to bend the texts to the preconceived notion after the fact. This is common across different reformist groups. Such distortion could be outright rejection, such as with the Qur’anists who simply throw away the entire hadith corpus. Alternatively, one can reject certain texts on the basis that they oppose “the intellect,” but by “the intellect” they simply mean modern sensibilities. However, this is not enough, as even parts of the Qur’an are deemed problematic and new interpretations must be devised. One particular example of this is when the Qur’an mentions cutting the hand of a thief as a punishment. Traditional scholarship examines the sunnah of The Prophet ﷺ to see that this punishment is restricted by numerous conditions on when it can actually be applied. Some classical legal edicts enumerate over 80 such conditions [3]. However, many of the apparently “Qur’an-only Muslims” reject that Islam condones such a “barbaric” punishment at all. Rather, they try to interpret the Qur’an in a manner that conforms with the accepted modern norm that corporal punishment is inherently wrong in and of itself. Besides weak appeals to language, some have even appealed to numerology to reinterpret the Qur’anic penalty [4]. It is ironic that Qur’anists and other reformists reject the notion of abrogation that is found in classical works of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), a concept based on verses such as Qur’an 16:101, but then use modern liberal values to abrogate various parts of Islam. As Shaykh Musa Furber put so aptly, the modernist says “I reject abrogation!” (of Qur’an or Sunnah by the like), yet wholeheartedly embraces it when it comes from the 20th century onwards [5].

Modern Misguidance Case 3: Interest & Influence of Foreign Powers

Many of these “reform” movements just so happen to support the dominant trends of modernity. They are often funded by ideological institutions, indeed the previously mentioned paper on homosexuality by Muslims for Progressive Values contains a disclaimer that it was funded by Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the United States. Thus, it is unsurprising to learn that foreign powers often put their support behind these movements as a vehicle for “reigning in” Islam. These foreign powers are especially eager when it comes to keeping Islam out of politics, keeping with historical precedent. For example, the 19th century thinker Syed Ahmed Khan was so extreme in his assault on classical Islam that he even denied that dua (supplication) to God had any real effect; according to him it was only done for one’s peace of mind. He believed in order to make Islam compatible with “modern knowledge,” most miracles in the Qur’an needed to be metaphorically interpreted. It also seems anti-clericalism in general was widespread in Syed Ahmed’s environment, with popular tracts declaring that “to comprehend the Qur’an and Hadith does not require much learning, for the Prophet ﷺ was sent to show the straight path to the unwise.” [6] An enticing idea at the surface, this falls apart under closer examination. [7] Meanwhile, as a former East India Company employee, Syed Ahmed was also a staunch defender of the colonial British government in his native India and strongly advocated for loyalty to the empire, even receiving a knighthood for his efforts.

In fact, influence from foreign powers is not mere history from the colonial era. Supporting anti-clerical attitudes to divide Muslims is current U.S. policy, as explicitly stated by RAND Corporation, a large global policy think tank funded by the United States Government that offers analysis for the Armed Forces. In a 2004 document, they published an explicit plan for how the West could mold Islam by stroking fitna (strife) between these groups and Muslims [8]. The paper first classifies Muslims into four categories: fundamentalists (who are described as being prone to violence), the traditionalists (who want conservative society, but are not extreme or violent), the modernists (who want to reform Islamic orthodoxy to make it line up with modern norms), and the secularists (who advocate for secularism). It then proceeds to advocate that the West should support traditionalist voices, but only just enough for them to combat the more violence-inclined fundamentalists. The modernists are the group that are to be supported first and foremost, with Western governments publishing modernist works at subsidized costs and introducing them into the curriculum of Muslim majority lands. Additionally, various progressive organizations have poured large sums of money in trying to change Islam in America through social movements as well as through the guise of mosques and traditional spaces. The divisions these “reforms” leave behind are cracks, and people are taking hammers to them.

Tearing tradition to shreds will not enable us to discover “real Islam” after 1400 years of continual and rigorous Islamic thought. To believe this is to fuel arrogance and pride in the human mind, placing Modern Man as the measure of all things. If Muslims want to be honest in their Islam while facing the deluge that is modernity, then academically engaging with our tradition is essential. It is perfectly acceptable to read Islamic scholarship with a critical eye, but we should engage the Islamic tradition from within, and not arrogantly dismiss it so that we can follow our desires. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking the 1400 years of scholarship we inherited is some sort of curse. Rather, it is a great blessing.

Citations:

  1. http://www.mpvusa.org/sexuality-diversity/
  2. Fakh al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210) and Ibn Hajar Haytami (d. 1566) both list ‘Liwat being haram’ as one of those axiomatic tenets of the faith (ma’lum min al-din bi’l-darura). Al-Qurtubi (d. 1273) stated that there was consensus on the prohibition on Liwat. Al-San’ani (d. 1768) states, ‘There is no doubt that he who undertakes the act of the people of Lot has committed a major sin…”; al-Zarkashi, al-Bahr al-muhit (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 2007), 4:566; Haytami, al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1998), 267; al-Qurtubi, Jami’ li-ahkam al-Qur’an (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2002), 4:212; Muhammad b. Isma’il al-San’ani, Subul al-salam (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2005), 4:18-19. The above is taken from this article: https://almadinainstitute.org/blog/the-shariah-homosexuality-safeguarding-each-others-rights-in-a-pluralist-so/ In addition the above mentioned references, Ibn Hazm, a scholar outside the four madhabs also affirms the prohibition of same sex relations, as can be seen in this paper by Mobeen Vaid (see pages 74-75): https://www.academia.edu/34861335/Can_Islam_Accommodate_Homosexual_Acts_Qur_anic_Revisionism_and_the_Case_of_Scott_Kugle This consensus is based upon numerous ahadith as well as explicit verses of the Qur’an.
  3. See “Appendix: Requirements for Amputation for Theft from al-Subki” on this page: https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/jonathan-brown/stoning-and-hand-cutting-understanding-the-hudud-and-the-shariah-in-islam
  4. http://www.quran-islam.org/articles/part_4/punishment_of_theft_(P1465).html
  5. Shaykh Musa Furber, http://musafurber.com/2015/04/12/the-number-wtfiqh-collection-number-2
  6. First page: http://www.academia.edu/13126439/Is_Islam_Easy_to_Understand_or_Not_Salafis_the_Democritization_of_Interpretation_and_the_Need_for_Ulama
  7. While many teachings such as the basics of monotheism, the importance of offering your prayers, the five pillars, and ethical messages such as taking care of orphans certainly can be easily understood by all, the notion that “to comprehend the Qur’an and Hadith does not require much learning” quickly falls apart when we reach a more advanced topic such as Islamic Law. One cannot begin to interpret Islamic texts without studying the sciences of the arabic language, such as sarf (morphology) and nahw (grammar). One must also study the sciences of hadith, such as the levels of hadith and their authentication, as well other fields such as logic and the principles of jurisprudence. This is not to mention the sheer thousands of hadith that exist and must be studied. Such tasks are not trivial and require specialists. The majority of people are not mujtahids (one capable of deriving Islamic rulings independently).
  8. https://www.rand.org/pubs/periodicals/rand-review/issues/spring2004/pillars.html

About the author: Marmuzah is an engineering student, with an interest in theology, philosophy, literature, and the Islamic sciences. You can follow him on Twitter here.

One thought on “The Incoherence of Modern Reformists

  1. The author lays out 3 premises for why Islamic Reform is wrong:
    Some Guy on Reddit:

    “It goes against 1400 years of traditional understanding.”

    I’m not sure why the author even bothered to write this one. The entire point of reform is to discard old understandings in the light of new ideas. Many Muslims are totally fine with this (Pew shows 52% of American Muslims believe traditional interpretations of Islam need to change). The author is basically arguing in this section that reform is wrong because its reform, which is just a waste of space.

    “Reform is wrong because its based on the exposure of Muslims to Western Liberalism.”

    Again, this is what reform is, change based on exposure to new ideas. This has happened before in Islamic history. The Ashari/Maturidi schools of thought only arose in response to their encounters with Greek Thought and Christian Argument (espoused by the Mutazila). Ghazali’s works draw heavily from philosophy. Modern rulings from scholars today (that slavery is banned) only exist because of the modern context we live in.

    “Reform is wrong because its pushed by non-Muslim powers who want to exploit us.”

    Even when true, this doesn’t make reform itself wrong. One could argue that the railroads built by colonial powers were for the purpose of more efficiently exploiting the natives, yet the railroad itself isn’t wrong, and is actually quite beneficial when used by the natives (which has been the case in much of the post-colonial world).

    Overall not a great piece by the author. Its clear he doesn’t like reform, which is totally fine, but doesn’t really give any convincing arguments for why a reader who is on the fence (or pro-reform) should agree.

    Like

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